Monsanto, the giant American biotechnology company, announced yesterday it is pulling out of GM wheat, which was supposed to be its next big genetically-modified product.
A statement issued from the company's headquarters in St Louis, Missouri, said that as part of a commercial "realignment" Monsanto is delaying the introduction of GM wheat for up to eight years.
The decision is a major blow for the company, which has pioneered the genetic development of crops. In 2001, Monsanto said it had begun field trials of GM wheat and expected the product to reach supermarket shelves in the form of the first genetically modified loaf of bread by the end of this year.
However, wheat farmers in Canada have told Monsanto that their markets in Europe and Japan could be jeopardised if they planted a GM crop, which would almost certainly end up being targeted by anti-GM campaigners.
Commentators said the decision to halt the development of GM wheat marked another embarrassing U-turn for the company, which last year decided to close much of its European operation, with the loss of 80 jobs in Britain, in the face of intense public opposition.
Monsanto had overcome many technical difficulties to producing a GM wheat resistant to the herbicide Roundup, and claimed an increase in yield of between 5 and 15 per cent over conventional wheat.
Carl Casale, executive vice president of Monsanto, said: "As a result of our portfolio review and dialogue with wheat industry leaders, we recognise the business opportunities with Roundup Ready spring wheat are less attractive to Monsanto's other commercial priorities." The company would continue to monitor the wheat industry's desire for crop improvements and could further develop GM wheat in four to eight years time, he said.
Daren Coppock, chief executive of the American National Association of Wheat Growers, which supports Monsanto, claimed the move "wasn't the end of biotech in wheat," but "this is just a decision by Monsanto that the market's not ready yet."
But Ben Ayliffe, an anti-GM campaigner with Greenpeace, said GM wheat was supposed to be Monsanto's next big thing yet the company had lost the support of its own customers.
"Monsanto failed to convince even the most die-hard GM supporters that GM wheat was worth the risk," he said. "World-wide opposition from farmers, exporters, and millers meant GM wheat would have been a bigger white elephant than the Millennium Dome."
A spokesman for Friends of the Earth said it was a "worldwide victory for consumers and farmers".
Joe Mendelson, legal director for the Washington-based Centre for Food Safety said: "Monsanto has run up against the reality of market rejection from both farmers and consumers and they realise that basically no one wanted this stuff. They're in full retreat."
The decision comes a month after Bayer Cropscience gave up attempts to grow commercial GM maize in Britain.